The Dark Tower series is the prolific horror writer Stephen King’s foray into epic fantasy. It took him over thirty years to complete this seven-book sequence, almost as long as it took me to pick up my first King book after a near-lifetime’s awareness of his works.
The Gunslinger is the first King novel I have read but I was familiar with his stories decades before they became age-appropriate. My late brother was almost thirteen years older than me and, when I was small, he held the keys to an adult world to which I desperately wanted access. He had a record player (and a CD player as well. I’m not that old). He had books. He had a Spectrum computer. Barbie, My Little Pony and She-Ra held only limited appeal once I’d got my eye on that lot.
When you grow up with a much older sibling, your journey through popular culture is accelerated. Example: when I was five I was listening to the Fall. When I was six, this was my favourite song. And when I was nine, my favourite story was The Sun Dog by Stephen King. Although my brother didn’t go so far as letting me read the novella for myself, he did regale me with some edited highlights.
As gripped as I was by the story, I was also utterly terrified to within an inch of my life. It is perhaps for this reason that I steered clear of King’s books until last month. Yes, at the ripe old age of 33, I finally felt Ready.
But not quite ready for the full-blown horror stuff. I was drawn to King’s take on epic fantasy, due to my own interest in the genre.
The Gunslinger is very short and reads more like a curtain-raiser to the series than an addition in its own right. It introduces us to the central character, the eponymous Gunslinger himself, also known as Roland of Gilead. It is here that the meshing of genres first becomes apparent. On one hand, the tropes are western right down to their sand-covered cowboy boots. Roland is a Gunslinger and he is in pursuit of a man in black. Roland pursues his quarry over a desert landscape. So far so familiar.
Yet these western tropes are fused with others that fantasy readers will immediately recognise. For Roland is also a knight of sorts. His intriguing, though hazily rendered, backstory is filled with hawks, castles, pseudo-duels, ballrooms and courtesans. And the man in black is also a sorcerer.
Not content with mixing western tropes and fantasy elements, King adds some post-apocalyptic dystopian strands, too. The Gunslinger doesn’t inhabit our world, though there are echoes of it: customers in a bar sing Hey Jude, for instance. Roland’s world has undergone some upheaval, a Fall of some kind. Our own world exists somewhere, though. From our world comes Jake Chambers, a young boy from contemporary New York with whom the Gunslinger forms a rather touching relationship.
If all this sounds like a confusing hotchpotch, then it is at times. But King just about manages to pull it off. Yes, there is a frustrating lack of clarity in places. The Gunslinger is journeying towards the Dark Tower, but why? At this point, who knows? King’s writing can be infuriatingly confusing. But it can also be utterly brilliant. His dialogue is often masterful: biting and laconic. There are some vivid and visceral scenes, too, making The Gunslinger the perfect novel for a visual reader like myself: you can see the endless desert and feel the arid heat.
Most importantly for the first in a seven-novel sequence, The Gunslinger holds a great deal of promise for the volumes to come. The Gunslinger himself is a promising character, though he is laconic and lacking in imagination. As such, he often appears rather one-dimensional and functional. He is thus in need of some back-up in the form of some engaging sidekicks; sidekicks who are conveniently and tantalisingly prophesied to arrive in the next installment.
And will I be reading the next installment? Yes. The Gunslinger may be confusing to the point of being impenetrable at times, but it ultimately lands on the right side of ambitious (just). I am hoping that the storytelling and world-building clarify in volume two. If they do, then this will be a compelling and immersive series.